Most articles about death in ancient Egypt surround mummies. But I’m more interested in their funerary rites. How were the ancient Egyptians buried? Did all of them get mummies and sarcophagi? Let’s go back 5,000 years.
The Ancient Egyptian Soul and the Afterlife
Before we talk about the funerals, I want to clarify some beliefs about the Egyptian afterlife. Most sources talk about the process of the soul entering the afterlife and getting judged (as detailed in The Book of the Dead). But what happens after that?
According to scholar Margaret Bunson, author of the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian afterlife was not in the clouds or underground. The realm of the dead, known as the Field of Reeds, was a mirror image of life on earth. If the proper funerary rites were carried out, souls could eat, drink, and even party.
In ancient Egyptian theology, the soul consisted of nine parts: the khat, ka, ba, shuyet, akh, ab, sahu, sechem, and ren. For the purposes of this article, the most important ones are the ka and akh.
The ka was the vital force that joined the deceased during the burial. It is not the body itself; that’s the khat. The ka was basically a person’s second form that was present during the funeral. When the Egyptians presented offerings, they gave them to the ka.
The akh is the closest concept to our modern-day ghost. It was an immortal, spiritual self that operated within the realm of the living and the dead. In other words, the akh could affect day-to-day life. The Egyptians worked to keep the akh happy so that the deceased wouldn’t haunt them.
Hauntings were taken very seriously. They could cause illness, bring bad luck, or damage a person’s property. According to the World History Encyclopedia, ancient morticians would advertise their services as making a family haunt-free. On the other hand, the akh was also petitioned in curses. Family members could write to the akh and ask them to haunt another person.
During funerals, ancient Egyptians were trying to do two things: (1) help the soul be happy in the afterlife, and (2) prevent the soul from terrorizing them.
One last thing. There are three deities who will frequently pop up throughout this post, so let’s get familiar with Them:
You might be wondering about Anubis. It’s true that He governed funerals and embalming, but He was mostly worshiped by embalmers. Common folk usually called upon Anubis for protection spells (according to Murry Hope in her book, The Ancient Wisdom of Egypt).
Mummies: Were They Really That Common?
First off, not everyone was mummified. The process was expensive and time-consuming, so most of the time, it was reserved for the wealthy. During the Egyptian Empire (3150 - 332 BCE), mummification became affordable and therefore more common. Even if the poor couldn’t afford mummies, they still had a funeral.
Second, the mummification process changed throughout the centuries. It also changed based on the deceased’s wealth and the area they were buried in. Because of this, I’m not going to spend much time talking about mummies.
I’ll give you a brief overview of the mummification process, based on what I read from scholar Salima Ikram. Embalmers would first remove the brain and internal organs. They then covered the body in natron, a type of salt. According to the Smithsonian, natron would remove all moisture from the body, which would prevent the decomposition process. Once the body was dried, embalmers wrapped the corpse in linen (usually hundreds of yards long). They glued the linen together with gum. The entire process took 70 days.
What happened to the people who weren’t mummified? They were still embalmed, but not fully mummified. Instead of being wrapped in linen, the dead wore their old clothes. They were then placed in a coffin and buried, much like today’s dead. Many were also placed in a sarcophagus, a stone container that held the coffin.
The Coffin and Sarcophagus
Many families would also pay for a sarcophagus. The sarcophagus didn’t just protect the body; it also had spiritual uses. Many were inscribed with hieroglyph spells. One was written vertically down the back of the sarcophagus. It gave the soul strength to eat and move around. Sometimes, instructions were carved inside of the sarcophagus. These are called the Coffin Texts and are a fun read for any death worker. In short, they’re a series of instructions that tells the soul what to do and where to go for a happy afterlife.
Once the family had their coffin and sarcophagus, and the body was embalmed, the funeral could begin.
Most funerals started from the embalmer’s tent. The procession followed the coffin, which was carried on a cart pulled by oxen. Relatives walked along either side of the coffin. Usually, there were at least two priestesses there, one for Isis and one for Nephthys. Relatives carried offerings and the deceased’s belongings. If applicable, one person carried the canopic jar. This jar held the corpse’s organs and was buried with the body.
Herodotus described Egyptian funerals as being dramatic, as people plastered their faces with mud and beat their breasts while mourning. It was believed that the Gods and the person’s soul (ka) could hear everyone’s mourning. Also, larger processions were an indication of the deceased’s high status.
In fact, some Egyptians were even hired to join funerals and mourn. These groups were called the Kites of Nephthys (as Nephthys was often depicted with kites), and they were almost always women. During the procession, they would sing “The Lamentation of Isis and Nephthys,” about the two Goddesses weeping over Osiris. Definitely a dream job.
Some processions included extra priests, dancers, and musicians. Basically, the wealthier the deceased, the more dramatic their funeral was.
So where did the procession go? Like us, the Egyptians had cemeteries. Most were buried in a dry spot west of the Nile, since the corpse would dry out more quickly. In many cases, the coffin and mourners would have to board a boat and sail there.
Once they reached the open grave, priests performed a ritual called the Opening of the Mouth. Remember when I said that the dead could eat and drink? The Opening of the Mouth ensured that the deceased could move their arms, legs, and mouth to fully enjoy the afterlife. (This ritual first appeared during the Old Kingdom, 2613 - 2181 BC).
Pretty much every funeral includes some offering to the deceased. Nowadays, offerings are usually flowers placed on the grave. In ancient Egypt, offerings were buried with the body.
Most offerings were items that the deceased owned. Family members would bury their favorite belongings, believing that these items would join them in the afterlife. Food and drink were also common offerings, mainly bread and beer.
I want to thank these sources for providing me with most of the information in this post.
Why Most People Get Ostara Wrong
Before researching Ostara, I made a poll for my patrons: Are you more interested in the history of the holiday, or modern worship techniques? My patrons voted for the holiday’s history. In the Wheel of the Year, Ostara is one of the biggest holidays. I thought that I would find a lot of interesting history.
But when I started researching, I was shocked at how many people made incorrect claims. Claims that Ēostre was a major Goddess, that She is equivalent to Astarte and Ishtar, that the holiday had been going on for centuries–all of which are wrong. I am gobsmacked by how much misinformation is out there.
Before I explain why these concepts are wrong, I want to provide some advice. If you want accurate historical information on Pagan holidays, don’t trust the top Google results. Look for museums, universities, and historians who will provide nuance. Even Wikipedia has more accurate information than many of the top blogs listed. And, as I will show later in this article, even university websites can be wrong!
How Significant Was the Goddess Ēostre?
Pre-Christian Germans did not write much down, so even the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda were written later by Christians.
When reading these works, you must keep bias in mind. Although monks were well-educated, they did not know everything about history. Many scholars believe that some of these monks made stuff up, such as the “blood eagle” execution method (seen in Midsommar), which has no evidence in archaeology.
But back to Bede. In all of his writings, Bede only mentioned Ēostre once: in The Reckoning of Time (725), which analyzes medieval and ancient cosmic calendars. In the work, Bede claimed that the holiday came from a spring festival celebrating Ēostre. He also said that the date of Christian Easter was calculated by the Roman monk Dionysus Exiguus, who timed it with the full moon.
This is the only evidence we have of Ēostre. She was only mentioned in passing, and although archaeologists have found evidence of ancient spring celebrations, most did not point towards a specific Goddess. This has lead many scholars to doubt that Ēostre existed.
But if that’s true, where did the names Easter and Ostara come from? In a 2008 paper, linguist R. Sermon provided one possible explanation:
“More recently it has been suggested that Bede was only speculating about the origins of the festival name, although attempts by various German linguists to find alternative origins have so far proven unconvincing. Nevertheless, there may be a more direct route by which Ostern could have entered the German language. Much of Germany was converted to Christianity by Anglo-Saxon clerics such as St Boniface (C.AD 673–754), who could have introduced the Old English name Eastron during the course of their missionary work. This would explain the first appearance of Ostarun in the Abrogans, a late eighth-century Old High German glossary, and does not require any complex linguistic arguments or the existence of a Germanic goddess Ostara.”
To be explicitly clear: I’m not trying to invalidate people who work with the Goddess Ēostre. Personally, I don’t think that deities have to be ancient in order to be valid. That’s why I’m capitalizing Her pronouns. I’m bringing this up because so many blogs claim that Ēostre 100% existed, and that She was historically and spiritually significant. If She existed, She was likely a minor deity.
Ēostre, Astarte, and Ishtar
This time, it was Scottish protestant minister Alexander Hislop. In his book The Two Babylons (1853), Hislop claimed that the name Ēostre was a twist of Astarte, whom he incorrectly equated with Ishtar:
“What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Ninevah, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. This name as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar.”
All of this is wrong, by the way. Linguists quickly debunked this theory back in the 19th century. If you’re wondering where the word Easter actually comes from, there’s a succinct article in Time that examines the most popular theories.
Despite this, people are still writing about Astarte and Ēostre as if They’re related. And even if the theory were true, Hislop did not say that Astarte and Ēostre were spiritually similar. He claimed that the names were similar, not the Goddesses.
Can we stop repeating these “facts” without researching them first?
One quick tangent before we continue: While writing this post, my husband asked if naming holidays after deities has historical basis. Although it was not common, it has happened. The Roman festival Saturnalia is an obvious example. But it’s much more common for holidays to be named after Catholic saints, such as Brigid’s Day, which I discussed in my Imbolc post.
Did Ancient Spring Celebrations Exist?
All of these misconceptions aside, the core of Ostara is not Ēostre. It’s the spring equinox and the changing of seasons. Did the ancients really celebrate the spring equinox?
Yes, many ancient civilizations celebrated the spring equinox. Shintoism and Hinduism both have holidays around this time: Vernal Equinox Day and Holi, respectively. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, lands on this day. And despite the spread of Islam, Nowruz is still a national holiday in the Republic of Iran.
Remember that changing seasons were especially important for rural communities. By the time spring began, many new livestock had been born, and new seeds had been planted. There was plenty to celebrate.
I also want to note that Ostara, specifically, is part of the Wheel of the Year. This calendar was inspired by ancient Scottish and Irish calendars, with some other traditions thrown in. Gerald Gardner, who founded Wicca and helped establish the Wheel of the Year, believed that Wicca was the ancient religion of the British Isles. Although his theory was incorrect, it inspired a lot of people to revive ancient festivals and holidays.
In the British Isles, not much is known about ancient spring festivals beyond Easter. But some theorize that Stonehenge likely played a role. Druids have been celebrating the spring equinox since the 18th century, which might have inspired some Ostara practices.
Despite being one of the most popular modern Pagan holidays, Ostara has the haziest history. Little is known about it, and what is known is widely debated.
Where Did Ostara's Symbols Come From?
You can’t research Ostara without running into popular Easter symbols such as eggs and bunnies. Many have questioned where these symbols came from. I’ve seen a few people theorize that they were Ēostre’s symbols.
Although historians don’t have a 100% definitive answer, it is widely believed that these symbols were pre-Christian. But they might not have been linked to any specific deity. More likely, they were symbolic representations of spring, namely the land’s fertility.
Fertility is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Wheel of the Year. When talking about fertility celebrations, we’re not focusing on human fertility. It’s the fertility of the land. I’m sure you’ve heard that the soil becomes fertile during spring. Livestock also become fertile and give birth to baby animals.
Despite what some people say (mostly on anti-Wiccan rants), fertility celebrations are not inherently sexual. In some cases they can be, such as in a fertility spell. But remember that we’re talking about seasonal holidays. The Earth’s ability to grow crops was especially important in ancient times.
How Do We Celebrate Ostara?
If you’re like me, all of this information probably made you more confused about Ostara than before. With such limited historical information, some might wonder whether we should celebrate the holiday at all.
Personally, I think the lack of information frees us to celebrate Ostara however we’d like. Although the ancient traditions disappeared, the core of the holiday is still present. We’re honoring the fertile land, warming weather, equal days and nights, and fruitful days to come.
I haven’t performed a traditional Wiccan ritual in years. It’s hard to even call myself a Wiccan at this point. But I still follow the Wheel of the Year because it forces me to slow down. These holidays remind me to pause, spend time in nature, and be grateful for the Earth that I often ignore.
The spring equinox is a holiday of hope and gratitude. Do whatever reminds you of your blessings and provides hope for the future. If painting eggs gets you in the spring mood, paint. If you want to go on your first spring hike or picnic, do that. If there’s still snow on the ground and you want to stay inside, draw or journal. Just take some time to slow down and thank the Earth.
I’ve always been fascinated with magical word symbols such as the sator square. How did these words become magical? Why are they arranged in a specific shape?
Most of these symbols are magical word squares (as opposed to magic squares that feature numbers–-see Agrippa’s planetary squares). However, some are arranged in different shapes, such as an upside-down triangle or an oval. The word squares are usually associated with British pellars and cunningfolk, as British folk author Gemma Gary recorded many of them.
But while I was researching them, I found that most of these symbols stem from two authors: a second-century Roman physician and an Egyptian Jewish mage from the 14th century. So how did these symbols end up in Britain? That’s what I want to explore in this post.
The Origin of Magical Word Symbols
Many of these magical squares and palindromes were discovered during excavations. The sator square, by far the most well-known of these symbols, was first found in Pompeii. Even some palindromes made with Greek letters were found as far north as Denmark.
However, many can be traced back to the two authors I mentioned earlier. The first is Serenus Sammonicus (birth unknown, died 212 AD), the personal physician to Roman Emperor Caracello Quintus.
Sammonicus practiced many magical remedies that he learned from his mentors and borrowed from earlier occult authors such as Pliny the Elder. His most famous work, Res Reconditae, is a series of five books featuring natural remedies. Most notably, Sammonicus recorded the ABRACADABRA palindrome and ABLANA / ANALBA. I’ll cover both of these later.
The second author is an Egyptian mage named Abraham, or Abramelin (sometimes spelled Abra-Melin). A teacher of Jewish magic, he was said to live from 1362 to 1458, although historians debate whether he actually existed.
Abramelin’s life was documented in the book, The Book of Abramelin. This 17th-century manuscript features 12 parts and hundreds of spells. But it is most well-known for its magical word squares.
Abramelin created these magic squares out of Hebrew words. However, the earliest found version of the book was in German, as he was said to live in Germany. Although the author quotes many Bible verses, he took them from a Roman Catholic version of the Bible, written in Latin Vulgate. To put it simply, these magic squares are made from Hebrew words that have been Latinized.
So how did these end up in Britain? In the 19th century, occultist Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers translated the work into English. Mathers was highly influential. As one of the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he pioneered modern ceremonial magic.
Mathers’ translation, which he titled The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage, skyrocketed in popularity during the late 19th and early 20th century. I believe that is how these magic circles ended up in British folk magic.
Given how complicated the history is (Roman > Egyptian > Europe and beyond), I’m going to divide these symbols into two categories: Greek/Latin and Latinized Hebrew.
Greek / Latin Magical Palindromes
Latin word symbols were usually arranged within a square, while ancient Greek ones came in different shapes.
The Sator Square
Translators believe that Arepo is a name, possibly of Egyptian origin. (Arepo appears nowhere else in Latin literature.) So the palindrome translates to “The farmer Arepo has [as] works wheels.” In other words, Arepo plows with wheels, possibly with difficulty due to the connotations.
What does this meaning have to do with magic? Well…nothing, as far as I can tell. The point is less about the literal meaning and more about how the letters are arranged. The sator square is unique in this aspect; most other magical word symbols have relevant meanings. The Romans also had many other similar palindromes, so I don’t know why the sator square became the most popular.
The sator square has been put on walls, doors, churches, houses, and barns. Although it came from the Mediterranean, it has been seen as far north as France. Folk magicians often wrote it on paper and folded it to put in witch bags. The type of paper and color ink depended on the spell.
Speaking of magic, the sator square is a protective symbol. In folk magic, the sator square has also put out fires, cooled fevers, protected livestock, and removed fatigue from travelers.
The Pater Noster Square A-O
The square has paster noster in a cross shape with the A’s and O’s in the corners. The oldest evidence of the paster noster square comes from the second century; it is one of the earliest examples of Christianity in Britain.
Like the sator square, the pater noster square is a protective symbol. It’s sometimes used for healing as well. Think of it as a shortened version of the Lord’s Prayer, which asks God to keep food on the table, forgive debts, and guard against evil.
ABLANA / ANALBA
So what does the palindrome mean? The most direct translation is, “Iahweh is the bearer of the sacred name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.” Iahweh is an Egyptian name and possibly refers to a deity. Some believe that this name is a version of God's name.
During the 5th century, Christianity was the official religion of Rome, but Pagan beliefs still thrived despite being outlawed. The IAEW-palindrome is a fascinating example of how these religions mixed in the Roman Empire.
Funnily enough, Polish researcher Joachim Śliwa noted that the scribe made a mistake. The author wrote “P” instead of “V.” Throughout history, most examples of this palindrome include the P, meaning that this spelling mistake turned into a widely-used magic symbol.
The IAEW-palindrome has been found in divinatory kits. The symbol likely connects magicians to the Gods and spirits. Sometimes, it is drawn with an Ouroboros around it.
Latinized Hebrew Magic Squares That Ended up in Britain
Most of these magical word squares were recorded in Gemma Gary’s book The Black Toad: West Country Witchcraft and Magic. I don’t know where Gary got these because she often doesn’t cite her sources. But when I researched the words, all of them came from The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage. Gary refers to these as British pellar spells, but they were likely used in Jewish magic as well.
The Book of Abramelin lists dozens, if not hundreds, of these magic squares. So I am not going to list all of them. I’m going to focus on a few from Gemma Gary’s books, since these have risen in popularity since the 2010s.
Unlike the previous palindromes, many of these don’t have official names. Abramelin did not name his spells, so I will reference them by their uses. All photos are from Gary's book.
Square for Love
But what does it mean? According to Abramelin, raiah is a female companion. It’s also a popular Jewish name meaning “queen of power.” Haiah comes from Arabic and means “modest,” although it could also be referencing Nith-Haiah, the angel of wisdom and magic.
Igogi is harder to translate. It might reference the Greek word agoge, which refers to the speed of music. If anyone knows Hebrew and can think of a connection, let me know.
I don’t know the translation for this square; this will be a common trend in this section. The Book of Abramelin does not translate all the words, and some of them have multiple meanings. I’m not going to act like I’m a Hebrew expert and try to translate these, but I will list their magical uses.
For Divination in General
According to The Book of Abramelin, milon comes from the Greek milos, meaning “fruit tree.” It might also come from the Hebrew MLVN, roughly translated to “the diversity of things.” Irago stems from the Greek eira, meaning “inquiry” or “question.” Lamal is “probably from Chaldaic,” and that’s all Abramelin says about it. Ogari possibly stems from the Hebrew OGR, “to swallow” or “swiftly flying thing.” Nolim is from the Hebrew word meaning “hidden or covered things.” I’m not a linguist, so I don’t want to try to translate the whole sentence.
Magicians put this symbol on divination tools or in their hat prior to divination.
For Divination, Mirrors and Crystals
According to The Book of Abramelin, gilionin is a version of the Chaldaic word GLIVNM, meaning “mirrors.”
This symbol is placed beneath or in front of the divination tool. People have used it on crystal balls, seeing glasses, magical mirrors, and more.
These magical words either have unknown meanings or are used in an unusual method. All are fairly popular in folk magic and deserve a discussion.
Magicians often write it on paper, fold it, and include it in healing bags. It is also carved into amulets that one can wear. Coral stones, metal, and birch paper are common materials to write it on.
Despite researching these words for days, I cannot find a translation of the word nalgah. If you have an idea, please let me know. But from what I can find, the word relates to spirit power, specifically the power of the serpent.
This symbol is similar to the sator square, and both symbols are written on either side of a charm for protection. It seems to draw upon the power of spirits as well.
The tetragrammaton is the five-letter Hebrew word for God’s name. As a magic symbol, it is actually three words–-or, rather, the same word written in three different languages. The first line is Phoenician, the second is Paleo-Hebrew, and the third is Hebrew.
I’m not going to include a picture because this symbol is unique to Kabbalah, a closed Jewish practice that requires lengthy study and initiation. Although the tetragrammaton is easy to find, you won’t know how to use it unless you understand Kabbalah. I can find information on how NOT to use it, but that’s about it.
Interestingly, ceremonial and folk practitioners got around this by writing the word tetragrammaton. As many know, the word tetragrammaton means “five-lettered word,” so they’re literally writing “five-lettered word” on top of other Hebrew words, assuming that everyone will know what they’re referring to. Here’s an example from Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall:
What Do I Do with this Information?
This post is a general overview of some magical word squares and palindromes. Note that each one needs to be used in a specific way. Don’t assume that one method will work for another one.
I find it intriguing that most authors will list these magical words, but not mention where they came from. In my opinion, that’s a massive oversight. There’s a lot of discourse over the use of Hebrew words in ceremonial and folk magic. Although we will never remove Hebrew from these practices, we should at least give credit where credit is due.
Many have also pointed out that these symbols were probably used before Res Reconditae and The Book of Abramelin. And I’m not disputing that. I believe there is much more associated with these symbols than we currently know. Some words, like abracadabra, may remain undefined forever. Historical evidence for folk magic, especially ancient Pagan magic, is very difficult to find.
Until we discover more, we’ll run with what we know. Those who read Hebrew might have corrections and additions to this post, in which case, please comment! We can always learn more.
Thanks so much for staying with me on this unusually long post. Hope you enjoy!
This is the first post in the 2022 Sabbat Series.
When I research Pagan holidays, I tend to avoid Pagan-focused sites. I prefer to pull from scholarly historical sources (such as museums, newsletters, the BBC, etc.) to learn unbiased history. But the more I looked into Imbolc, the less Pagan it became. Most of Imbolc’s history is rooted in Christianity, albeit with obvious Pagan roots.
So today, I want to relay Imbolc’s real history–not as some modern Pagans like to tell it, but how it actually was.
What Is Imbolc?
Imbolc, pronounced “oi-melc,” marks the halfway point between winter and spring. It lands on February 1st and 2nd, although Brigid's Eve (January 31st) was also important in ancient rituals.
Imbolc comes from the ancient Irish word im bolc (im bolg in modern Irish), which means “in the belly.” It refers to milk being in the belly of a sheep. This is the time when farm animals start to reproduce and lactate. The holiday was celebrated in Medieval Ireland and Scotland, although some scholars believe that it was pre-Christian.
According to the ancient Celtic calendar, Imbolc was the first “Fire Festival.” Fire Festivals were the four cornerstones of the year; they represented weather and harvest changes. The other three Fire Festivals also made it into the modern Wheel of the Year: Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain.
Although there are many traditions and beliefs associated with Imbolc, three symbols come up over and over again:
The History of Imbolc
The earliest mention of Imbolc is from poetry that was written between the 7th and 8th centuries. The most famous example was Táin Bó Cúailnge, "The Driving-off of Cows of Cooley.” Often called “The Irish Iliad,” this epic poem tells a group of tales that take place in 1st century Ireland.
Poetry from this period associates Imbolc with ewe’s milk, which in turn represents purity. Some also connect it to St. Brigid (whom I will discuss later).
Remember when I said that Imbolc might be pre-Christian? There is some evidence for that. To start, Christianity did not arrive in Ireland until the 5th century. (Some evidence indicates that Christianity might have been there earlier, but we don’t know for certain.) And conversion was not immediate. Contrary to popular belief, the British Isles flip-flopped between Paganism and Christianity for centuries. It is unclear when Britain became fully Christian, as rural communities often held on to their Pagan roots during the early Middle Ages.
And although Táin Bó Cúailnge was written down in the 7th century, it was an oral tradition long before that. Since most people were illiterate, most religious traditions were oral, which makes them very difficult to track from a historical perspective.
Some evidence suggests that Imbolc was celebrated in Neolithic Ireland, albeit under a different name. Some Neolithic tombs, including the Mound of the Hostages and Cairn L, were aligned with the sunrise on Imbolc and Samhain. To clarify, though, this is not enough evidence to ensure that Imbolc was 100% Neolithic, as some websites claim.
But the biggest aspect of Imbolc–the part that is simultaneously the most “Christian” and the most “Pagan”--is Brigid. Both the Irish Goddess Brigid and St. Brigid, patron saint of Ireland.
Brigid vs. St. Brigid
Despite Brigid being such a well-known Goddess, not much is known about how She was worshiped. (I won’t dive too deep into Her worship because this is an Imbolc post, not a Brigid one.) One of the earliest written records of her was Cormac’s Glossary, a 9th-century Irish glossary written by Christian scribes. It spoke about Her mythology, but not Her worship or rituals.
Most of what modern Pagans now associate with Brigid actually relates to St. Brigid.
St. Brigid, according to medieval Irish records, was an abbess who founded Ireland’s first nunnery, Kildare. Along with her charity work, she was said to have performed various miracles, mostly related to healing. Although the earliest records of St. Brigid came from the 7th century, she was said to have lived from 451 to 525.
Historians debate over whether St. Brigid was a real person. Most believe that she was a Christian version of the Celtic Goddess. The two share many similarities; for instance, St. Brigid is the patron saint of blacksmiths, farmers, livestock, children, travelers, watermen, and poets. See the similarities?
The process of converting a Pagan deity, tradition, or church into a Christian one is called syncretism. Not only was it a common method of conversion–it was the most effective. When I took a university course on the conversion from Paganism to Christianty, I learned that conversion accelerated when missionaries started tweaking Pagan traditions.
Churches would be built on sacred Pagan spots; holidays such as harvest festivals became Christian celebrations; Pagan deities became Christian saints. These conversion techniques were incredibly effective because people didn’t have to change their daily lives. Knowing this, it’s not a stretch to assume that St. Brigid is a canonized version of Brigid.
Let’s start with Brigid’s cross, which has become a reclaimed Pagan symbol. Despite the name, the cross is associated with St. Brigid of Kildore. Historically, people would make these crosses and hang them above windows and doorways to prevent harm. Early versions also had three arms instead of four.
According to the Irish Central Newsletter, the biggest celebration of Imbolc was Brigid’s bed. Brigid was said to walk the earth on Imbolc Eve, and women would prepare for her arrival.
Women and girls made dolls of Brigid called Brideog (meaning “little Brigid”). Nowadays, most Brideogs are corn dolls, but people also made them from oats and rushes. The women would make a bed for the doll to lie in and stay up all night with her. In the morning, men would ask permission to enter the home and treat the doll with respect, as if she were a guest.
Other rituals were popular on Imbolc Eve. Before bedtime, women would lay a cloth or piece of clothing outside for Brigid to bless (called a “Bratog Bride”). These clothes were said to gain healing and protection powers. To ensure that Brigid passed by, the head of the household would smother the fire and rake the ashes smooth. In the morning, they’d check the ashes for any disturbance to see if Brigid walked by.
Like the Goddess, St. Brigid was said to bring the light back into springtime after a long period of darkness. Offerings to her included coins and snacks.
Modern Imbolc Celebrations
In terms of magic, spells having to do with cleansing, divination, fertility, and love will all be effective.
So Is Imbolc Christian or Pagan?
In short, it’s both. Imbolc is a perfect example of syncretism. The holiday’s traditions have become so blended that it’s hard to discern what belonged to which religion.
In the occult community, many people say that the more you study folklore, the less you know. The same goes for religious history. Even acclaimed historians struggle with the gaps in historical evidence. Modern Pagans can never perfectly reconstruct a holiday. We can only celebrate with what we know and what we want to do.
If you want to honor the Goddess Brigid, do it. If you want to connect to St. Brigid, do it. If you aren’t drawn to either figure but celebrate Imbolc still, do that. Approach this holiday however it may fit your spiritual path.
These articles greatly helped me in researching this post.
Thank you to my patrons, who encouraged me to make this Sabbat series.
When most people discuss ancient Greek funeral rites, they often talk about Charon, the river Styx, Hades and Elysium. Many remember that people would put coins in the deceased’s mouth for Charon. But ancient Greek burial was much more complex than that.
For instance, Charon did not appear as a major Greek figure until around 500 BC. Before then, Hermes brought the dead to Hades. The earliest mention of placing coins in the deceased’s mouth was Aristophanes’ The Frog (450 BC). On top of that, Elysium (Paradise) did not rise in popularity until the 5th and 4th centuries BC, and it was only in certain religious groups.
If you pull from ancient Greek sources to work with the dead like I do, you’ll want accurate information. I have spent a long time researching ancient Greek burial rites. To save you some time, I’ve written an abridged version of what their funerals might have looked like. I’ll include sources at the end, too.
Views of the Afterlife That Many Don’t Discuss
Before I jump into ancient Greek funerals, I want to include certain perceptions of the afterlife that many other authors gloss over. According to Robert Garland, a historian and professor of Classics at Colgate University, the Greek view of death was much less uniform than we believe. Ideas of the afterlife varied by culture and city-state, especially during the Classical Era (500 - 323 BC).
According to most sources, when a person died, their spirit (psyche) left the body. Unlike other cultures, the body was no longer important to the spirit. The psyche either left through the mouth or through an open wound, if applicable. Homer mentioned a spirit from the heart (thumos) and viral spirit (aion), but these had no further role and were hardly ever mentioned.
As many know, the Underworld (often just called Hades) was surrounded by rivers. Although the most famous river is Styx, the Underworld actually had five rivers, as per The Odyssey and Aeneid: Acheron (the river of woe), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire), Lethe (the river of forgetfulness), and of course, Styx (river of unbreakable oath by which the Gods took vows.
However, a river was not the only way to get to the Underworld. Other sources mentioned souls going over the edge of Okeanos, the Western Sea. In many myths, people entered Hades through a cave. Oracles governed specific areas that connected to the Underworld. If a soul’s body was not buried, it could not enter Underworld, so the Greeks would even bury their war enemies.
Before Charon came onto the scene, Hermes escorted souls from Thanatos (the God of death) into Hades. Later, some believed that Hermes brought the souls to Charon, who guided them from there.
Souls had a neutral, calm existence in the Underworld. Many believed that they were happy with rites and funerals, but other than that, they had no contact with the living. However, during certain feasts and festivals, the dead were said to join the living and eat designated meals, similar to many modern-day feasts of the dead. When they did speak to the living (such as through necromancy or oracles), they conveyed wisdom relating to the future, past, or present.
With these facts in mind, let’s move onto ancient Greek funerals.
Burial or Cremation?
During Greece’s early history, most corpses were cremated. By 1100 BC, however, most Greeks switched to burial. Athens was the exception.
If corpses were cremated, they were still buried in simple, rectangular pits or placed in urns.
Historians received most information on Greek funerals from Attica, between the 8th and 4th centuries BC. These were rather lavish, and some families could not afford all of these steps. Even so, the ancient Greek funeral was divided into three stages.
Prothesis - The Laying of the Body
Side note: the Greeks considered anything that was in contact with a corpse to be “tainted.” That included the house and its water. A fresh bucket of water was placed outside the door for visitors to “cleanse themselves” after paying respects. I'll expand upon this later.
Ekphora - The Funeral Procession
Afterwards, on the second and third days, the mourners had a feast of the dead called perideipnon. They would return to the house with drinking, merriment, and libations to the Gods.
After the Burial
Because deaths (and births) were considered “polluted,” the ancient Greeks would cleanse themselves after these events. This act of purification was called lustration.
Since the prothesis occurred in the home, all areas of the home--including the water--were considered polluted. A “clean” bucket of water remained outside for visitors to wash their hands. After the funeral, the home was washed with “new water,” usually from an ocean or spring. In Argos, mourners even put a “new fire” into the hearth.
Other lustrations included: fumigation (often with sulphur or incense), rubbing oneself with clay, or “washing off” with animal blood. These were not exclusive to funerals, however.
Cemeteries were said to be slightly polluted. Ghosts were said to hover near the burial site. If one wanted to communicate with the dead, they would go one of the Underworld entrances mentioned above, or to the ghost's burial site.
What Can Practitioners Take Away from This?
After years of digging into ancient Greek funerals, I’ve pulled together correspondence lists that relate to that culture. If your Craft or faith pulls from ancient Greece, these might be useful to you.
Offerings for the Dead
Libations are usually poured downward into the earth or another container.
Keep in mind that these are not the only offerings for the deceased. They are just options that I took away from the sources in "Recommended Reading."
To Honor or Heal the Dead
For Spiritual Protection
Did I miss anything? Can you recommend other sources to people? If so, let me know in the comments below.
Everything You Need to Know About Yule: History, Traditions, and How to Celebrate It
The winter solstice, Yule, is rapidly approaching. Many Pagans celebrate Yule, and while I was researching the holiday, I wondered where the traditions came from. I knew a few things, such as that the Yule log and wassailing came from Norse culture. But when I researched more, I found out that Yule is an amalgamation of several cultures, from Roman to Egyptian to modern-day Christmas.
This post is an exploration of modern-day Yule. I’ll go into the history of where certain celebrations came from and how they gathered to create the holiday. Then, I’ll discuss how you can celebrate Yule today.
NOTE: For this post, I will call ancient Pagans “Pagans” and modern Pagans “NeoPagans.” I don’t usually do this, but I’m making an exception for clarity.
The Ancient Germanic Jól
The first written record of Yule we have comes from fourth-century Germany. During that time, the Yule festival began after the first day of autumn. In the tenth century, Haakon the Good of Norway shortened Yule to 12 days at the end of the year. The ancient calendar did not encompass 365 days, so the 12 “extra” days became the celebration.
The word Yule comes from the Old Norse jól and Old English ġēol. It was pretty clearly a Pagan holiday. One name for Odin, jólfaðr, literally means “Yule Father.” The holiday celebrated the winter solstice, and it was a time to make oaths, such as marriages and rulership.
The Old Norse practiced a form of trick-or-treating on Yule. Children would ask their neighbors for treats such as figgy pudding. For dinner, communities would traditionally eat boar (ham), wine, and nog.
In the Middle Ages, people practiced wassailing. It was similar to Christmas caroling where people would sing at neighbors’ doorsteps with a wassail bowl. The bowl was filled with some kind of drink, usually cider, wine, or ale blended with honey and spices. They offered their drink in return for gifts.
Ancient Pagans also believed that the trees slept through autumn. During Yule, they would pick orchards and lay them near trees to “wake them up.” Mistletoes were considered to be sacred and a symbol of Freya. If they spotted a mistletoe, the ancients would let it fall onto a white cloth. Then, they would give parts of the mistletoe to each household to ward off evil.
The Yule Log
The Yule log is perhaps the most well-known holiday tradition. And no, we’re not talking about the French dessert. We’re talking about a log that is burned throughout Yuletide. Today, NeoPagans often decorate logs and place candles in them in honor of the tradition.
For the ancient Norse, however, the Yule log was an entire tree. Communities would take great care to choose a sacred tree to chop down. After cutting off the branches, they would haul the trunk into a long hallway. Instead of lighting the entire tree on fire, they only lit the end. Over time, the ancients would push the trunk into the fire, burning the entire thing throughout the 12 days of Yule. In Holland, Pagans gathered the tree’s ashes and placed them under their bed for protection.
The Roman Festival Saturnalia
The ancient Romans had their own solstice festival, Saturnalia, which went from December 17th to December 23rd. There are many interesting facts about Saturnalia, but I’m going to focus on the factors that likely influenced modern-day Christmas and Yule.
Saturnalia is widely credited as the origin of “Christmas cheer.” The holiday was created to imitate the rule of the Titan Saturn (Cronos in Greek), who governed a golden age. During this time, the Romans practice “role reversal” where their usual societal rules did not matter. Slaves ate with their masters, wars would go on pause, and all political squabbles would cease.
Partying and gift-giving were huge aspects of Saturnalia. On December 19th, the Romans would give each other sigillaria, or gag-gifts. For regular gifts, children often received toys, and adults could get expensive gifts such as a farm animal. A common gift was a cerei, a wax candle that signified the sun returning after the solstice.
People decorated their homes with greenery and wore colorful clothes called synthesis during dinner.. Singing, dancing, gambling, and playing games were common celebrations, as well as large feasts. I’m sure that you can see the similarities between Saturnalia and modern-day Christmas/Yule.
The Ancient Egyptian Winter Solstice
The ancient Egyptians also celebrated the winter solstice. For them, the return of the sun was closely associated with their sun God, Horus. However, in the Middle Kingdom, this festival celebrated the births of five deities over five days: Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.
I want to address the common myth that Horus was born on December 25th. This is incorrect. According to Plutarch, Horus was born on the winter solstice, which can land between December 20th and December 22nd depending on the year. Although these dates are close, they should not be conflated.
The Egyptians frequently associated deities and pharaohs with the sun. They built their shrines so that the sun would rise in between two pillars on the solstice. They knew that they could not live without the sun and welcomed it back in winter.
The Mysterious Origin Of Christmas Trees
Although some NeoPagans say that Christmas trees were appropriated from Paganism, the truth is not so black-and-white. Historians still aren’t sure where the Christmas tree tradition began. However, we do know that ancients from several cultures decorated with evergreens.
The ancient Celts used to decorate temples with green boughs, the plant of the sun God, Baldr. The boughs symbolized everlasting lift and the return of the sun. The ancient Egyptians also placed greenery over doors and windows to ward off malicious spirits and illness.
So when did people start hauling trees indoors? Historians still aren’t sure. The first record of a decorated Christmas tree came from Martin Luther, the 16th-century leader of the Protestant Reformation. Luther reportedly came up with the idea to place candles near a tree after lights outside of his church.
Many historians believe that people were likely bringing trees indoors for many years before Martin Luther. Perhaps Luther was the first well-known figure to decorate a tree. But as for where Christmas trees come from, we’re not quite sure.
Did Christians Steal Christmas?
The claim that Christians stole Christmas from the Pagans is everywhere, especially in Pagan communities. I can’t talk about the history of Yule without addressing these accusations.
First off, the claim that December 25th came from the winter solstice is not entirely correct. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria claimed that Mary conceived Christ on March 25th (the same day as his future death). Therefore, Jesus was born nine months later, on December 25th.
When missionaries aimed to convert Pagan populations, this date came in handy. The most effect method of conversion was to take previous holidays, locations, and figures and change them from Pagan to Christian. Although Christmas was already being celebrated, it was close enough to the winter solstice that the celebration made sense to many Pagans.
In my opinion, the most common misconception about the Christian conversion is how long it took. Many people assume that conversation was quick; it wasn’t. Conversion took hundreds of years. In the Norse, Nordic, and Celtic countries, areas were constantly being taken over by Viking clans before returning to missionaries. So one area would become Pagan, then Christian, then Pagan again over hundreds of years.
This is why we see so many Pagan traditions blended into Christian ones. People took old Pagan celebrations, such as decorating with evergreens, and continued them with a different religion. On top of that, the government eventually became Christian, and it enforced how people should celebrate holidays.
Now, I’m not trying to relieve the missionaries from blame. They absolutely forced people to convert, and there are cases where the word “stealing” is appropriate. For instance, in Ireland, the Goddess Brigid was so popular that missionaries transformed Her into Saint Brigid. But for Christmas, I personally believe that the answer is more complicated than “Christians stole it.” The Christian holiday already existed, and Yule traditions eventually blended in and became Christian.
Wiccan Yule and the Holly and Oak Kings
In Wicca, Yule is a Sabbat, or a celebration of the sun. In some traditions, Yule honors the rebirth of the Horned God. The God passed away on Samhain (Halloween) and is reborn on Yule.
In other traditions, Wiccans celebrate the legend of the Holly King and the Oak King. Although some claim that this myth is ancient, we have no record of it before Robert Graves’ 1948 book The White Goddess. Graves compared the legend to other myths such as Lugh and Balor and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Similar comparisons came from the 1890 book The Golden Bough by anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, but the Oak and Holly Kings story did not arise until later.
According to the story, the Holly King and Oak King battle throughout the year. The Holly King represents darkness and gains power during the autumn equinox. On Yule, the Oak King, which represents light, overthrows the Holly King. In some traditions, these kings are aspects of the Horned God, and the Oak King fights for the Goddess.
How to Celebrate Yule Today
You might have read about all of these traditions and gotten confused. How can we celebrate modern-day Yule when it has so many origins from so many cultures? Fortunately, many of these holidays have overlap, and we can decide which traditions we want to celebrate.
How do you celebrate Yule? Did I miss any facts or traditions? Are you reading this on the holiday or before? Let me know in the comments below!
If you’ve been reading witchcraft and occult books for a long time, you may have noticed that most spells and folklore trace back to ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the British Isles. Why do you think that is? Well, part of it is English colonialism. It’s no secret that the Brits preferred some cultures over others.
Another reason is that these cultures spent a lot of time writing things down. Other communities, such as African tribes, hardly wrote anything down. Their traditions are primarily oral, and for centuries, historians didn’t bother to record oral history.
Fortunately, this is changing. Many historians are taking the time to write down oral stories and traditions so they don’t become lost. But much of history--especially magic--has already become lost due to the lack of recording oral history.
Don’t believe me? I’ll list some examples below.
I’m writing these down because (a) they fascinate me, and (b) I want to remind people that we don’t know everything. In the occult community, some people believe that written spells survived because they work. But that’s not entirely true. Many other spells existed--and likely worked--but were never written down or saved.
What do you think about these lost spells? Do you think that we will ever figure out what they were used for? Let me know below.
The Dolls in Miniature Coffins
In 1836, three boys were hunting for rabbit burrows near a rocky formation in Edinburgh called Arthur’s Seat. One of the boys spotted a slate, and he moved it to discover a tiny cave. After digging further, the boys found some objects. They were miniature coffins, only four inches in length.
Although the boys uncovered eight coffins, but only five of them survived after the boys hurled them at each other. Yes, really. They threw around historical artifacts.
Eventually, one of the boys brought the surviving coffins to his father. After opening each coffin, the father discovered eight tiny dolls. Each one has a unique face and clothes, and some don’t have arms, likely to fit inside the coffin. At least two were pink or red, and they were carved from white wood. They date back to the 1780s.
Throughout the centuries, many people have come up with theories about the purpose of these miniature coffins. Some claim that these figures represent the victims of the nearby West Port murders, but there is little evidence to support this.
In 2018, historian Jeff Nisbet claimed to “crack” the miniature coffin mystery. He claimed that these dolls represent people who lost their lives during a political revolution. However, his theory is no more “proven” than others.
Many believe that these dolls were ingredients in a spell. Perhaps sailors carried these dolls to ward off death on their journey. Newspapers from 1836 credited “demonology and witchcraft.” What do you think the coffin dolls were used for?
The Bronze Age Bird Skull Headdress
In January 2019, archaeologists dug up several skeletons in Siberia’s Novosibirsk region. While the fully-preserved skeletons were an amazing find, the archaeologists uncovered a peculiar find. One skeleton wore a headdress of bird skulls.
Between 30 and 50 bird skulls and beaks were tied together to create the headdress, which was likely worn on the neck or collar. The bones belonged to large shore birds, including herons and cranes.
Historians nicknamed the skeleton “the Birdman of Siberia,” and they suspect that he was a priest or a shaman. According to carbon dating, the skeletons date back 5,000 years. He was likely a member of the Odinov, a culture that dominated Siberia during the Bronze Age.
Siberian researcher Lidia Kobeleva believes that the headdress had a ritualistic purpose. But what exactly was it? Was it protective? Did it connect the shaman to spirits? Was it dedicated to a deity? Perhaps all of the above.
What do you think was the purpose of the bird skull headdress?
Babies Buried with Skull Helmets
This is a strange one. In 2014, archaeologists unearthed an ancient burial site in Salango, Ecuador. The funerary mound, which dates back 2,100 years, revealed many interesting finds. But the most unusual were two infant skeletons wearing bone “helmets.”
These helmets were made from the skull fragments of older children who had died before the infants. The infants were younger than 18 months, while their skull helmets came from children between ages four and 12. Archaeologists called it “using juvenile crania as mortuary headgear.”
The children were members of Guangala, a civilization that lived on Ecuador’s coast around 100 B.C. But despite knowing when the infants lived, historians still have no idea what the skull helmets mean.
Archaeologists have many theories. One is that these helmets represent the infants’ ancestors quite literally protecting them. Others believe that the helmets protect infants in the afterlife, or that they symbolize conquering another nation. We still have no idea what these skull helmets mean.
What do you think about the skull helmets? Do you think they were a spell, or purely symbolic?
Archaeologists are skill unearthing facts about ancient civilizations. Some could have been spells, but we will never know if they actually were.
Do you think that you can use this knowledge for your Craft? Do you believe that these were even spells at all? Leave your theories below!
There are no books specifically about death witchcraft. That is why I wrote one. However, you can find many texts on death work, necromancy, ancestor work and folklore that can aid your craft. Here are many of the resources that helped me learn.
If you have any more sources, please, please add them. Or you can message me, and I’ll add them. Sources for death witchcraft are elusive, and I would appreciate any extra insight or resource.
On Worshipping Hades
There are a ton of posts out there for signs and symbols, offerings and all that. Regardless, I’m making this post because Hades is the God I receive the most asks about, and this post was highly requested.
~ The Basics ~
Ideas for His Altar:
~ Active Practice ~
Ideas for Active Worship:
~ Frequently Asked or Requested Information ~
Hades can help with:
You DO NOT need to:
You DO need to:
For more information about worshipping Hades and my experiences with Him, feel free to check out my zine Pleading to Hades.